Supply chain management: Innovations and opportunities

By Nadee Bandaranayake

The digital transformation of the retail industry has touched all areas of the business, and supply chain in particular has evolved quickly over the past decade. What once may have only dealt with transportation and logistics is now much more complex and integral to the business of retail. “It touches all of the roles in some way, shape or form,” said Cameron Geiger, senior vice president of U.S. supply chain services for Walmart Inc., during a panel discussion on the NRF Foundation Student Program stage.

Geiger was joined by Melissa Barr, senior director of supply chain strategy, analytics and technology at The Kroger Co., and Magnus Rindefjell, H&M’s senior vice president of supply chain for North America, to discuss what a career in supply chain management looks like and how the supply chain has evolved with technological innovations and changing consumer preferences.

 The evolution

“Supply chain is not just about distribution and transportation,” Geiger said — today’s retailers have extensive networks that enable companies to monitor and ensure quality from the farm or factory all the way to grocery store shelves, restaurant kitchens or customers’ homes. Supply chain management now involves everything: Where to build warehouses, how to best maximize use of a fleet, whether to invest in automation and robotics — and if those technologies would help scale the business and increase speed and accuracy.

Technology’s role

Technology helps keep solutions quick to implement and scalable without adding extra costs that would eventually be passed on to consumers. “There’s a role for technology in supply chain like it’s never been in the past,” Barr said.

With advancements over the past decade, gut-check decision-making is a thing of the past. Technology that enables data-driven decision-making plays a key role in today’s supply chain management. But when it comes to buzzy technologies like virtual reality, artificial intelligence and blockchain, “you’ve got to solve a business problem,” Geiger said, instead of getting excited about the technology itself and trying to implement solutions without having a problem to solve. “You can’t invest in all of them.”

Today’s supply chain challenges

Innovation: The challenge for retailers is to first make sense of the years of data collected to turn them into actionable insights. “It’s the age of innovation,” Geiger said, and successful companies are those that come up with solutions that are scalable, repeatable and sustainable. “I spend a lot of time taking the art in supply chain and making it science,” he said.

Sustainability: Sustainability is a strategic priority at H&M, Rindefjell said, but the challenge for all retailers is to balance customer expectations with sustainability. Even though consumers are getting used to receiving their purchases faster with options like two-hour delivery and one-day shipping, companies are challenged to think long-term about how these practices affect the planet.

Forecasting: Improving the accuracy of forecasting and being able to identify and respond quickly to situations is another challenge. Decisions used to be based on past data, but retailers are getting better at forecasting, especially with AI-powered models that generate decisions once they are fed raw data. Geiger said retailers should focus on moving to cognitive analytics in the future, where the system uses data to accurately predict and act autonomously.

Labor shortages: Cultural shifts and other factors have produced massive labor shortages in some roles such as truck drivers. With more people wanting to take on meaningful roles in many industries, it is retail’s challenge to find solutions for getting lower-level tasks done, whether through technology like self-driving vehicles or other means.

What employers are looking for

Supply chain panelist at the 2019 Student Program

The panelists stressed that students looking for a supply chain-specific role (or any retail job that will impact the supply chain) should be able to work in teams, as everyone has a role to play in making the supply chain competitive. “Now more than ever, collaboration is key,” Barr said.

“Having a holistic view and seeing how things connect” is also integral, Rindefjell said. Potential employees should also have a strong work ethic, be well-versed in the art of storytelling, understand how IT serves the supply chain and appreciate why the customer is central to business. “There is no substitution for a really good user experience,” Geiger said.

For more insights from the Student Program, check out the official recap.